Did you know there are now more than 15 million cancer survivors living in the United States?! Do you know someone or have a loved on who is a cancer survivor? Cancer has rocked my family and, chances are, it’s deeply affected your life or someone you love as well.
National Cancer Survivors Day® is a CELEBRATION for those who have survived, an INSPIRATION for those recently diagnosed, a gathering of SUPPORT for families, and an OUTREACH to the community. The day is meant to demonstrate that life after a cancer diagnosis can be a reality. Today is about celebrating survivorship, but also to raise awareness that though we’ve made incredible progress, we have a long way to go in the fight against cancer, through better prevention, detection, and treatment.
My lovely friend Sarah was diagnosed with medullary carcinoma. It was detected because her OBGYN found a lump in a physical exam during her third pregnancy. It was a chance finding by a doctor who needed to get in some extra hours, asked to re-do her physical, and found the lump in her throat. He insisted she get an ultrasound immediately. They wanted to do a biopsy, which took TWO MONTHS (when she was then 7 months pregnant), it came back as suspicious, but not conclusive. After she gave birth, she went into surgery to have the lump removed. In the hospital, she held her new baby in her arms all night to nurse (despite nurses telling her ‘no’), while her husband slept on the floor. Doctors sent off the tumor. Results came back malignant. She had medullay carcinoma. It’s one of the rarest forms of thyroid cancer. Normally, medullary carcinoma doesn’t present itself until it spreads, and is even more rare in young people. Had the doctors known it’s class of cancer, they would have removed ALL her lymph nodes because medullary carcinoma tumors spread quickly, dangerously and are deadly. Half of her thyroid was removed, and she is on the watch list. “I was absolutely SHOCKED to my core. I NEVER thought I’d get cancer, especially at only 33 years old.”
No chemo. No radiation. They caught it early.
Even more lucky for Sarah, the tumor was contained. The funny thing is, Sarah struggled greatly to get pregnant with her second child, her son Finn. They tried for 6 years and it took 11 rounds of IUI and two rounds of IVF. But quite unexpectedly, after Finn, Sarah got pregnant again. A total surprise. Sarah calls her third child, an adorable chubster named Gwen whom I’m particularly in love with, her guardian angel. “Had I not been pregnant, I wouldn’t have had that extra physical, the tumor wouldn’t have likely been noticed until it was way too late.”
How is life different for Sarah now that she survived cancer? “As a mother, it’s scary knowing it can come back. Some days I feel like I’m always looking over my shoulder. I’m not scared for myself, I know where I’m going!….but I just fear leaving my children behind without a mom. Also, losing one of your organs leaves you feeling a little off, and I struggled with depression. A non-cancer survivor simply doesn’t know the FEAR that a family experiences during something like that, especially as a wife and mother, we worry about the people around us MORE. I don’t feel sorry for myself at all. I was lucky and I knew it. When I was sick, I felt like I was failing. Like I wasn’t doing enough or being there for everyone because I didn’t (and still don’t) have the same energy to run and play with my kids anymore. So then guilt comes into play.”
Being a cancer survivor also affected her marriage. “I think it affected my husband more than it affected me. He wanted to tell people about it and I wanted to keep it very private, so that was tough for us.”
I asked her, how cancer changed her view on the life she lives? “When you are put in that position, you reevaluate your life. I went through a big change. I decided to not do things that I had always done out of fear or guilt. I cut toxicity out of my life. It was hard, but definitely the right thing to do. I pray pointedly now. I dramatically changed my diet. No more Diet Coke! I ate rigidly strict Whole 30 immediately following my surgery. It changed everything.”
[Crazy side story: “I met a woman, of the same age, with a baby girl the same age as Gwen. She was battling aggressive breast cancer (and still battling it). When talking to her one day, she expressed she couldn’t breastfeed her daughter anymore because of the drugs and treatment, but her baby wouldn’t take a bottle, had horrendous allergies to everything, and wasn’t gaining weight, was crying and suffering. It sounds crazy but, in that moment, I had heard a voice, it was God, say to me, “Ask her if she will take your milk.” So I did. She accepted. I volunteered my extra breast milk for almost a full year. I nursed Gwen, then would pump more milk for her baby and deliver it every few days. Her baby gained a TON of weight! The irony is, if I hadn’t gone through cancer, I never would have changed my life and diet. So, by then, I had a CLEAN body, a totally clean system. I was eating only pure, whole foods. I was producing TWICE as much milk as before. Without my milk, her baby would have suffered cruelly. I would go through my cancer journey all over again, if it meant to help my friend and her baby.”
Her health advice to others? “GET CHECKED. GET A MAMMOGRAM. 60% of people have nodules. Get physicals and routine blood-work. Go to the doctor. More men get thyroid cancer because they don’t go to the doctor! Honestly evaluate the way you eat and live, because it truly can make a difference.”
Her emotional advice to those around cancer patients and survivors? “I didn’t need sympathy. I just needed support. Don’t make someone’s cancer diagnosis and journey about you. We don’t think we do it, but we DO. Don’t say, ‘I’ve been crying for days about your diagnosis. I’m so sorry, I’m sorry.’ I often found I had to make others feels better about my cancer diagnosis. Instead say, ‘I love you. We’ll fight this together.’ Also, be PROACTIVE. ‘Let me know if you need anything’ is a great line, it’s kind, but it’s vague and I felt bad asking for help. It was when people just showed up with food and did things on their own accord that helped me, without having me to ask all the time. Knowing people cared was one of the biggest, most powerful tools in my journey.”
How has her perspective changed? “It definitely made me question my faith. I know the Bible. I know the stories and had been raised a Christian. But it made me sincerely ask, “What do I really, truly, actually believe in?? I did real soul-searching. And then it happened: I felt God. I talked to him in a way I never have before. I felt peace because of it. So when I feel fear of the cancer returning, which is often because I have to get tested every 3 months, I lean on my faith and my relationship with God in a way that I never have before.”
In talking to Sarah for this post, a realization came to me: Knowing a cancer survivor is a gift. They have so much to teach and, in honor of National Cancer Survivor’s Day, let’s do them all the honor of listening.
Let today be a celebration of how abundant life after cancer can be. But may it also be a call to action for more research, resources, and legislation to improve the quality of life of cancer survivors.